by Vanessa Tottle & Gabriel Valdez
You know what fight choreography is, we know what fight choreography is. Let’s just dive right in.
Oh, and we should warn you that unlike our other Best of 2014 articles, since fight scenes usually involve a big reveal or someone’s death:
THE MOVIE CLIPS IN THIS ARTICLE CONTAIN SPOILERS.
They won’t play without you clicking on them, but just be aware of the above if you do.
3. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER
Chris Carnel, fight coordinator
James Young, fight choreographer
This has stunts and fight choreography across the board – car chases (although the more outlandish stuff is CG), knife fights, wire-assists – you name it, it was in the Captain America sequel.
It was a really good year for practical choreography on film, and Captain America includes much more practical work than any other Marvel film. That blending also requires a great deal of creativity on the part of the stunt and fight coordinators, who wanted something less cartoonish and more immediate and brutal.
2. JOHN WICK
Jonathan Eusebio, Jon Valera, fight coordinators
Are you going to eat those mashed potatoes?
No, I’m saving them for later.
This is the attitude that permeates the creative fight choreography of John Wick. Gun fu has been around for a while, but what Keanu Reeves practices is closer to gun jutsu. He controls the nearest threat with his body, saving him for later, and deals with the furthest one or two or three. It’s completely counter-intuitive and could only work in movies, but it is downright beautiful to watch.
It completely undermines your expectations of how a fight’s going to proceed and using Keanu Reeves as its dancer, John Wick gives us martial arts movements according to a ballet philosophy.
The clip above is the conclusion to a sequence that sees Reeves fight his way through several floors of a club. Each floor has its own dance music, and the pace of the choreography changes according to each genre – slowed down and deliberate in the new age spa, frenzied and tense on the dubstep dance floor.
It’s exceptionally clever, and that’s even before mentioning the fight between Reeves and Adrianne Palicki a few scenes later, which begins like a dance and ends like a brawl.
1. THE RAID 2
Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, fight choreographers
Here is one of the most overlooked movies of 2014, a martial arts film that you could take every action scene out of and still be left with a compelling gang drama. And yet, those action scenes are some of the best ever filmed.
Director Gareth Evans leaves the fight scenes to his choreographers, who also play a lead and supporting character, but he still insists on using long takes that hit certain marks. The fight scenes to him are opportunities to communicate emotion in a way that’s removed from traditional storytelling. They’re filled with visual beats that lay their characters raw in a way that’s shielded during dramatic scenes.
In this clip, for instance, we already know that Hammer Girl is deaf, but when her sunglasses are knocked from her face, it’s revealed that she only has one eye. We stay on this for only a split-second, nothing is mentioned, and the fight doesn’t stop. It’s a heart-wrenching realization that suggests a whole other film’s worth of story, told in a moment, and that turns the end of a henchwoman from one character’s triumph into another’s tragedy.
This is how the film constantly communicates an anti-violence message through some of the most brutal fight choreography ever put in a movie. That’s not to say The Raid 2 doesn’t like cinematic violence. To the contrary, it basks in it, but it uses this to create a message about real-world violence and corruption in Indonesian politics.
We could talk about Iko Uwais’s tight body control and efficient movement, Yayan Ruhian’s loose, wildly animalistic performance, and how every character in the film fights completely differently, but in the end, Evans uses the choreography not as an attraction, but as one more storytelling tool to convey emotion and fill the world of his story in with detail. It has fight scenes that will make you cry. How many films can say that?
What makes the fight choreography in The Raid 2 special isn’t just the insane technical level required of the performers, it’s that the choreography itself tells vignettes inside the bigger story. The narrative doesn’t stop while we watch the fighting. As in dance, the story condenses and intensifies.
We’re always talking about how filmmakers need to invent new “cinematic language” for technical elements on film. The Raid 2 invents brand new language for fight scenes and how they can be used. It’s a rare instance when a film does that this successfully.
In the lead-up to the Oscars, we’ve named several Best of 2014 Awards, with a special focus on categories the Oscars don’t include: